ISLAMABAD — Renewed Indo-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir, just before U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s August visit to the region, demonstrated how close to war South Asia’s two nuclear rivals remain.
Pakistan claimed that India launched a new attack on its territory using fighter jets and ground troops. New Delhi denied the accusation. The northern Kashmir area in question was so inaccessible that independent confirmation of Islamabad’s claim was impossible.
In the months ahead, the United States is likely to continue to urge New Delhi and Islamabad to launch a new peace initiative to prevent an escalation of tensions. Not only would a war have tragic consequences in itself; it would also affect the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Many analysts believe U.S. efforts in Afghanistan will continue for months, if not years, as rival Afghan groups continue to remain at odds. In addition, the situation in the nearby Middle East remains explosive and al-Qaeda is certain to attempt to exploit new flare-ups in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.
The success of U.S. efforts to prevent an escalation of the Indo-Pakistani dispute is contingent on three vital considerations:
First, the U.S., which has thus far sent high officials to both countries to counsel peace, will have to come to the table with new ideas aimed at bringing about an Indo-Pakistani detente.
For years, at least in public, the U.S. has maintained an ambivalent position on the Indo-Pakistani Kashmir dispute. Such ambivalence appears to have been primarily driven by India’s refusal to allow third-party involvement in negotiations between the two countries. However, the events of the past six months in Kashmir have demonstrated that the threat of a nuclear clash between India and Pakistan is real, and that the international community can no longer conveniently distance itself from the Indo-Pakistani dispute.
Second, years of hostility between India and Pakistan have prevented the development of a mutually beneficial relationship based on trade. Given current tensions, it is difficult to imagine that the two countries could immediately set aside their differences and work toward such a goal. Thus mediation efforts by a third-party such as the U.S. must include a commitment to lay the basis for a wider relationship through the promotion of trade and business ties once the political divide begins to be bridged.
Third, it remains in Washington’s long-term interest to make it clear that another conflict would trigger unprecedented international sanctions against both countries irrespective of whoever fired the first shot.
The need to use the international community’s full power to restrain India and Pakistan has never been more compelling. There is no greater fallacy than the hope, based on the Cold War experience, that India and Pakistan can continue to engage in low-intensity conflict while relying on their nuclear capabilities to deter the outbreak of war.
Conditions of the Indo-Pakistani conflict are qualitatively different from those that existed during the Cold War. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had no land dispute and the two countries were geographically distant, something that reduced the chances that an outbreak of conventional hostilities would turn into a nuclear war.
And although U.S. troops were deployed in countries such as Germany as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the troops they faced from Eastern European countries served as a buffer for Russia.
In addition, while U.S. and Soviet conventional forces had the appearance of being relatively balanced for much of the Cold War, India’s superior conventional military power means that if war broke out, weaker Pakistan might be forced to use its nuclear weapons as a last resort.
In short, being on the brink of conflict has a radically different meaning for India and Pakistan than it did for the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
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